Henry Rzepa's Blog Chemistry with a twist

March 13, 2012

Confirming the Fischer convention as a structurally correct representation of absolute configuration.

I wrote in an earlier post how Pauling’s Nobel prize-winning suggestion in February 1951 of a (left-handed) α-helical structure for proteins[1] was based on the wrong absolute configuration of the amino acids (hence his helix should really have been the right-handed enantiomer). This was most famously established a few months later by Bijvoet’s[2] definitive crystallographic determination of the absolute configuration of rubidium tartrate, published on August 18th, 1951 (there is no received date, but a preliminary communication of this result was made in April 1950). Well, a colleague (thanks Chris!) just wandered into my office and he drew my attention to an article by John Kirkwood[3] published in April 1952, but received July 20, 1951, carrying the assertion “The Fischer convention is confirmed as a structurally correct representation of absolute configuration“, and based on the two compounds 2,3-epoxybutane and 1,2-dichloropropane. Neither Bijvoet nor Kirkwood seem aware of the other’s work, which was based on crystallography for the first, and quantum computation for the second. Over the years, the first result has become the more famous, perhaps because Bijvoet’s result was mentioned early on by Watson and Crick in their own very famous 1953 publication of the helical structure of DNA. They do not mention Kirkwood’s result. Had they not been familiar with Bijvoet’s[2] result, their helix too might have turned out a left-handed one!

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References

  1. L. Pauling, R.B. Corey, and H.R. Branson, "The structure of proteins: Two hydrogen-bonded helical configurations of the polypeptide chain", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 37, pp. 205-211, 1951. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.37.4.205
  2. J.M. BIJVOET, A.F. PEERDEMAN, and A.J. van BOMMEL, "Determination of the Absolute Configuration of Optically Active Compounds by Means of X-Rays", Nature, vol. 168, pp. 271-272, 1951. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/168271a0
  3. W.W. Wood, W. Fickett, and J.G. Kirkwood, "The Absolute Configuration of Optically Active Molecules", The Journal of Chemical Physics, vol. 20, pp. 561-568, 1952. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/1.1700491

October 21, 2011

Historical detective stories: colourful crystals.

Organic chemists have been making (more or less pure) molecules for the best part of 180 years. Occasionally, these ancient samples are unearthed in cupboards, and then the hunt for their origin starts. I have previously described tracking down the structure of a 120 year-old sample of a naphthalene derivative. But I visited a colleague's office today, and recollected having seen a well-made wooden display cabinet there on a previous visit. Today I took a photo of one of the samples:

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